Page last updated at 13:09 GMT, Friday, 20 November 2009

Charity EveryChild issues warning on separated children

By Richard Galpin
BBC News, St Petersburg

Svetlana Filipova and her husband
Police took away the Filipovas' two sons, aged six and two, in May

The number of children around the world living without any parents or separated from their families has increased to 24 million with a third of them placed in orphanages, a leading British charity dealing with children's rights has warned.

The warning from the charity EveryChild comes as events are held around the world marking the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The convention was designed to protect children from abuse and ensure they are able to grow up in a family environment.

But in its report EveryChild says research shows there has been a "substantial and growing number of children without parental care, with devastating impacts on children's rights".

One region of concern is the former Soviet Union, where it is estimated more than a million children are still living in institutions that EveryChild describes as "damaging", even though the vast majority are not orphans. They still have at least one parent alive.

No action plan

In a Moscow news conference this week, Alexei Golovan, the child's rights ombudsman for Russia, said his country now had more orphans than during Soviet times and warned that Russia was not fulfilling the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Alexei Golovan
The social services need to work with families when they start getting into difficulty so the families can sort themselves out and keep their children
Alexei Golovan
Russian child's rights ombudsman

"There is no national plan of action here," he said. "There should be a government strategy but there is not."

In a grimy flat in St Petersburg, I met a couple who had recently lost both their children to an orphanage.

The mother, Svetlana Filipova, described how the police had taken away her two sons, aged six and two, in May.

She said they were taken because "I cannot walk and my husband does not work".

But apart from disability and poverty, there may have been other factors involved in the decision, as she says her husband drinks heavily.

Even so she is desperate to get her children back.

"I feel that my children are crying," she said. "I sleep very badly at night and when I wake up they are not there. I really miss them."

She is convinced she would be able to look after them properly if the authorities agreed to let them out of the orphanage.

Volodya Filipova
Volodya, the Filipovas' eldest son, had just returned from a talent contest

But she now has to go through a formal process of appeal and it is far from certain she will succeed.

On Thursday, she managed to meet her children at the orphanage for the first time since they were taken away six months ago.

Her eldest son, Volodya, had just returned from a talent contest which had brought many of the city's so-called orphans together for a day of fun.

One of their guardians insisted the boys' stay at the orphanage was only temporary "until the parents are ready to take them back".

Russian and international experts say the authorities are far too keen to take children away from families in difficulty, with poverty often given as the official reason.

The experts have appealed to the authorities to do everything to keep families together.

"The social services need to work with families when they start getting into difficulty so the families can sort themselves out and keep their children," said Alexei Golovan.

"Often here we only intervene when families have got into a complete crisis and then it's easier to take the children away."

There are signs that the government is trying to stop so many children entering orphanages and the figures have started coming down.

There seems to be recognition that putting children in institutions is harmful for their development.

Some 10% of children who have been in orphanages in Russia later commit suicide, according to EveryChild.

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